Oberlin Blogs

Summer Rap-up

August 12, 2011

Joe Dawson ’12

I'll save you the suspense, there's no rapping in this entry. Sorry.

I finished up both of my summer jobs this week (to read more, look here). I've been enjoying the project at UNC so much, I'm trying to figure out a way to bring it back to Oberlin this fall. I like all the freedom that it has, all the choices we get to make, the sort of global control we can exercise in this undertaking. I have a feeling of excitement about maybe continuing on with this project. The project is wide open in terms of design and implementation, open to us students, we just have to convince the people we work for that what we're trying is a good idea.

Working on this thing has made me feel a little like Edison, doing lots of tinkering and testing. Sometimes we have a little setback, so we get rid of whatever we've added, but mostly we've been working by incremental successes, gaining efficiency in cooling times or power required little by little.

One potential drawback that may actually be helping us is the fact that we don't actually know all that much about what we're doing. We each come from slightly different backgrounds, so we can help fill holes in each other's knowledge, but we also recognize that none of us are experts, so none of us are bashful about asking for help.

The project has very little funding, which is probably the reason why I get to have such a central role. If this were a funded project, undergrads wouldn't be the ones making all of the executive decisions, and the work would probably be divided between a number of people. We have a great situation where we have access to expert advice with some money to buy the materials we need.

Naturally, there are frustrations dealing with so little money. Having a full machine shop at our disposal whenever we wanted it would be nice. Things would go much more smoothly if we had tools and parts there when we wanted to test them. Even if each piece of the unit is cheap and we can order them fairly easily, the final thing has to be very cheap in order for it to be a viable alternate to the current system.

If I were to bring this project back to Oberlin, I think I would need to find a sponsor at Oberlin. The professor helping us out at UNC is a Biology professor, Dr. Jacobson, but I think someone in the Physics department might be better suited to helping out with this particular project.

There are stove conventions held every year, where designers and engineers come together to try to build low-cost, clean burning stoves for people in developing countries, the same kind of areas we are designing this cooler for. I was fascinated when I heard about the stove conventions, and I realized recently that the same kind of people who are working with me on this project are probably working on better stoves. The work is noble enough, the impact is real (more efficient stoves could help decrease greenhouse gas and need for fossil fuels in these countries, vaccine coolers could help reduce mortality rates). The economic impact is not immediate, and certainly the products would not make much money, even if they could save money in fossil fuels used or reducing healthcare costs.

There are also selfish reasons for doing projects like these. You get to play the inventor role, after all, putting your own ideas into practice. You can see the result with something solid, real. You also get to collaborate with like-minded people from other disciplines, and breakthroughs can be really exciting.

I'm hoping everything works out and I can keep working on this project during my final year at Oberlin. My supervisor at UNC told me earlier this week that he would love for me to continue working on the project back in Oberlin, and I just sent out an email to a Physics professor to see if he would help me take this show on the road; wish me luck!

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